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Spiritualism

Spiritualism as a religious movement was a varied set of beliefs and practices related to the conviction that the living and the dead could be in meaningful communication. It flourished in the second half of the 19th century and considerably affected both Universalism and Unitarianism at the time.

One event that precipitated "Modern Spiritualism," as it was called, was the 1847 publication of The Principles of Nature, composed by Andrew Jackson Davis, a young entranced seer from Poughkeepsie, New York. He claimed the spirit of Emanuel Swedenborg had dictated the book, an airy speculation on the evolution of the cosmos, culture and religion. In 1848 three young sisters, Margaret, Kate and Leah Fox, generated public excitement with their claim to have contacted spirits of the dead through telegraphic rapping in their home near Rochester. From the Fox sisters' experience came the pattern for the sťance, or spirit circle. Soon many "mediums," especially sensitive to "impressions" from spirits, guided hopeful participants.

The number of spiritualists in America grew rapidly in the decade of the 1850s. Just before the Civil War spiritualists and non-spiritualists alike estimated the number as two to three million (out of a U.S. population of 30 million). Estimates varied wildly since spiritualism was never a systematically organized phenomenon. It was pervasive into the early 1870s and then began to fade, though never dying out completely. Spiritualism attracted people from every religious background. Many Universalists and Unitarians, especially, were drawn by the hope for communion with the spirits of the dead.

A disproportionate number of Universalists actively helped to shape the movement from its beginnings. Universalists were among its public lecturers and promoters. Most of the editors of the spiritualist newspapers had been Universalists. Many had been ministers, including Samuel Brittan, William Fishbough, Thomas Lake Harris, Woodbury Fernald, Simon Hewitt, Russell Ambler, Joseph Barrett and James Peebles.

While the spiritualist movement comforted the recently bereaved, it also made spiritual matters the subject of empirical investigation. Spiritualism's rationalist, perfectionist and individualistic assumptions linked people in the movement with the liberal, progressive, even radical reform movements of the time—abolition, woman's rights, health reform, labor reform and communal experiments. Spiritualism inspired the activism of many leaders of these movements.

Universalist involvement in spiritualism needs to be seen as one feature of the rationalist challenge to belief in Biblical revelation and to the common belief in miracles as suspensions of natural law. Spiritualism was taken as a practical demonstration that the workings of cause and effect extended to heaven and the afterlife.

Spiritualists with a Universalist background often adopted Restorationist arguments about the progressive change and growth of the soul after death. Contacted spirits showed themselves to be still developing. Printed debates concerning spiritualism appeared in the Universalist press and revived earlier arguments between the Restorationists and the "Ultras," the latter pressing Hosea Ballou's conviction that all souls, no matter what their earthly history, were granted eternal salvation immediately after death. Restorationist advocate Adin Ballou became a spiritualist. Other Universalist ministers later turned to spiritualism, such as John Spear, Joshua Ingalls, and Linus Smith. All these took part in this controversy about the nature of the afterlife.

Spiritualists defended and urged Higher Criticism of the Bible, as well as (pre-Darwinian) evolutionary theory and a comparative approach to world religions. Like other 19th century "sciences," such as phrenology and mesmerism, Spiritualism attempted to reconcile spirit with matter, and religion with science. New England Universalist ministers had taken a lively interest in mesmerism. A number of them became investigators and mesmeric operators in the 1840s, touring and demonstrating trance induction. Among them were John Dods, Sylvanus Cobb, Theophilus Fiske, Gibson Smith, and Chauncey Burr. Their entranced subjects often claimed clairvoyant powers to diagnose and prescribe for sickness. When mediumistic trance became more popular than mesmeric trance, these powers continued to be associated with trance mediums, with the spirits working as healing agents through them.

Many other Universalists opposed spiritualism, however. Some were skeptical of any communication between the spirits and the living. Others reacted to its challenge to tradition. In the early 1850s there were moves to protect the Bible and those vested with authority to preach its message. Universalist conventions adopted creeds specifying belief in the Bible and in Jesus as Savior. As tests of orthodoxy, required for the maintenance of fellowship, the new creeds tended to pry out clerical spiritualists and "infidels." Other aspects of Universalist leaders' opposition to spiritualism were unrelated to the issue of spirit contact. For example, they rejected Davis's Principles of Nature because the book taught that animals evolved, and because it taught that religions' doctrines were not eternally fixed but had been framed to fit different historical contexts. Universalist opponents of the spiritualists called them "Christian Rationalists" or simply "Rationalists."

As spiritualism developed, some adherents came to believe that spiritualism had always been the experiential and mystical core of all religions. Spiritualist philosophy assumed a connection among all people and things, times and places, and believed that this connection could be mystically experienced. Some spiritualists were prepared to set Christianity aside as an outmoded relic. "Christian Spiritualists" such as Adin Ballou, believed that spiritualism offered a way to penetrate to the heart of Christianity's deepest revelation.

Spiritualism challenged the Universalists' way of organizing their churches, in that it sanctified and accepted the authority of personal experiences quite outside the range of traditional clerical consensus, or agreement among those the Rev. Russell Streeter called "the boys in black." (At mid-century Universalist ministers were adopting clerical gowns). One of the goals of the movement was to transfer authority from institutionalized, abstract or impersonal sources to the individual's direct experience of spiritual truth. In practice, those who became sensitive to direct impressions from the spirits were most often young women. This fact also made for clerical opposition.

Moreover, spiritualism exhibited some undeniably wild features. Its practice centered on the sťance. Participants sat around a table as they waited for spirits to make themselves known, in the near-dark, with hands joined to facilitate the movement of "energy." Sometimes the disembodied spirits spoke using the medium's voice, or wrote messages using the medium's hand. But even more uncanny or entertaining events might also occur. Furniture might tip or levitate. Musical instruments might float above the sitters' heads and play tunes. Letters, coins, flowers or birds might materialize and fall on the table. The spirits might guide entranced participants through impromptu allegorical skits, enacting, perhaps, the journey of the soul after death. Sometimes lower spirits might take license to conduct more scandalous activities through their entranced human instruments.

Universalists were split in their response to these things. Some embraced or tolerated spiritualism. Some repudiated it. Some of the clergy, such as Thomas Whittemore, Thomas Sawyer, Hosea Ballou 2d and John Austin, argued against it, and urged churches to rid themselves of spiritualists. Many local controversies were reported in both spiritualist and Universalist newspapers. Members of individual churches had to decide whether to allow spiritualist groups or lecturers to use their buildings for sťances or public talks. In some cases, when the spiritualist faction in the church had become large, they had to decide whether to stay in fellowship with their Association or Convention.

Spiritualism was also a millennial movement. Its adherents were fired with enthusiasm, as were those of other contemporary millennial movements. Evidence of the coming Kingdom of Heaven was making itself apparent in the Last Days. The Past and the Future were materializing in the Present. In earlier decades Universalists had been skeptics in the face of Adventism and Revivalism. Therefore, one might be forgiven for expecting those Universalists drawn to spiritualism to be primarily interested in its more rationalistic emphases. But the historical record gives no support to such an expectation. Universalists propagated the idea that the spirits had come to earth with a millennial goal, to lead the world into "a new era."

Spiritualists believed a revolution in human affairs was imminent. Spirits would sanctify sexuality between those in true psychic accord and forbid it between any others, a notion challenging the institution of marriage and elevating the affections, especially women's affections, as the ethical touchstone of sexual behavior. The Communion of Saints had begun a mixing of embodied and disembodied spirits. Spirits would take on physical bodies, if sensitive humans allowed themselves to be used by the spirits to shape and transform the world. A person might become an angel—or sleep with one, or give birth to one—thus "re-generating" or ennobling the race. This idea gained strength after the Civil War as other social engineering schemes took root in progressive circles.

In the 1850s a few Universalist ministers, having been disfellowshipped for their spiritualism, found temporary positions with Unitarian congregations. Many Unitarians were interested in spiritualism. Transcendentalism's advocacy of the sacred within the everyday, its encouragement of self-reliance and its preference for mystical experience over reason provided a reinforcing context for encounters with angels in the parlor.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, saw spiritualism as merely a variation on the ideas of Swedenborg, about which he had doubts. He objected to Swedenborg's "mixing of levels," heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, high and low. Swedenborg's angels wore hats, "exhibited Hebraicisms" and resembled "French peasants." Emerson called spiritualism "midnight fumblings over mahogany" and a "rat-hole revelation" that "comes in by raps" from the scullery. In response, spiritualists, such as the Rev. John Pierpont, drawn to it from Unitarianism, pointed out that even Jesus had been born in a lowly manger.

In general spiritualism's eagerness to place oracular authority in the hands of everyone, or just anyone, did not sit well with Unitarians of the upper social strata. Some Unitarians interested in spiritualism distinguished their own "higher Spiritualism" from "lower Spiritualism," distancing themselves from the latter. "Higher Spiritualism" resembled the cultivation of creative inspiration and feeling promoted by Transcendentalists. When inspiration became specific and practical—moving pieces of furniture, providing schemes for social revolution or mechanical invention, revealing where to look for hidden treasure, or advising whom one ought to marry or divorce—it shaded into "lower Spiritualism." Moncure Conway classed it with the primitive belief that someone might actually be resurrected from the dead.

Universalists who had turned to spiritualism saw Unitarian participants in sťances as uncommitted to the spirits, as well as apt to distance themselves from spiritualist friends, out of social embarrassment. Spiritualists found the Rev. Thomas Starr King, for example, vexing. King preached sermons about heeding the voices of inner inspiration, and he himself consulted trance mediums. He would not publicly promote spiritualism and, indeed, publicly pointed out its faults. Many Unitarians avidly investigated spiritualism, but usually represented it in such vague terms that they did not jeopardize their standing. There was little direct confrontation over it in Unitarian churches.

Minot Savage explained his decades-long spiritualist activities as tentative. He wrote that deciding that spiritualism was true would entail no course of action, that it would merely give one a conviction of immortality, previously a matter of unstable faith. Savage's spirits did not take up the sword, threaten the established order, or mix religion with politics.

Some Unitarians, more inclined toward activism, valued spiritualism as an antidote for emotional coolness. Theodore Parker, for example, never tied himself to spiritualism, but wrote that only the spiritualists had "new fire in the hearth." Some formerly Unitarian clergymen took to the spiritualist lecture circuit. They included Theodore Higginson and Harvard-trained Allen Putnam and Herman Snow. More commonly, Unitarians, like William Henry Channing, combined an intense private interest in spiritualism with a diffident public stance.

Both Universalism and Unitarianism reached an accommodation with spiritualism in the latter half of the 19th century. The terms of the accommodation might be characterized as "Believe it if you must, but don't preach it." In time new organizations, of Theosophists and Christian Scientists, arose to compete for the allegiance of those drawn to spiritualism. But as late as the 1880s spiritualist newspapers reprinted Universalist and Unitarian sermons lifting up liberal sentiments shared by the spiritualists. In the face of declining numbers of Unitarians, Universalists and spiritualists, an unsuccessful attempt was made to draw all three groups into a "Church of the Spirit."

In time, both Universalist and Unitarians churches achieved more clarity in their views of science, evolutionary theory, comparative religion, and Biblical criticism. These were disentangled from spiritualism when it became clear that spiritualist claims were not verified by science. By the early 1880s spiritualist interest in "manifestations" had degenerated into a taste for "full-body materialization" of apparitions from the "spirit cabinets" of mediums, from the repertoire of stage magic. Spiritualist investigation was recast as psychical research, which encouraged efforts to catch mediums in fraud. Spiritualism now looked less like a progressive avant garde than like a quaint curiosity. Radical social and political movements, within which spiritualism once thrived, now embraced materialism and even atheism.

All these developments left old-line spiritualists disenchanted. For them spiritualism's "phenomena" were less important than its philosophy, which made the sacred open to all. They tended to migrate into organizations that saw spiritualism as one approach to religion among many. Spiritualism had no further direct effect on Universalism or Unitarianism until the late 1960s. A variety of New Age forms of spirituality appeared in the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Association. Many of these, especially the "channeling" of spirits, can be viewed as late growh from seeds of certain beliefs and practices of 19th century spiritualism.

The story of the nineteenth-century intersection of spiritualism with Universalism and Unitarianism is the subject of John B. Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (2003). Most of the sources for documenting the subject are the Universalist, Unitarian, and spiritualist newspapers between 1845-1890. Denominational histories have almost entirely ignored the subject. Exceptions are a few pages in Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope (1979) and a chapter in Ann Lee Bressler, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 (2001). A history of a local church which does consider spiritualism at length is Joella Vreeland, This Is the Church: The Story of a Church, a Community, and a Denomination, First Universalist Church, Unitarian Universalist, Southold, New York (1988). Modern articles include J. William Broadway, "Universalist Participation in the Spiritualist Movement of the Nineteenth Century," Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (1980-81), and Gary Burrill, "Hopedale's Echoes: Spiritualism, Unitarian Universalism, and the 19th Century Movement for Reform," UU World (March/April 1994). Historians of of the broader sweep of American spiritualism have each devoted a few pages to it: Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989 and 2001), Bret Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America (1997), Robert Fuller, Mesmerism and the American Cure of Souls (1982), Craig Hazen, The Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2000), F. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology and American Culture (1977), Frank Podmore, Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism (1902), and Ann Taves, Fits, Trances & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (1999).

Article by John Buescher - posted December 1, 2001


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